Buying nothing new this year definitely has me rethinking my relationship with stuff. I’m throwing less away and stretching the life of things I already own—patching, mending, darning, gluing, duct taping, etc. So, the idea of “repair cafes” got my attention.

A couple of times a month in Amsterdam, people can bring their stuff to a community center where volunteers who like to fix things will give it new life—for free. The organizers (who serve coffee and cookies and call it a cafe) see it as a way to reduce waste, save money, and subvert our “throwaway” culture. Repair seems like a key component to reducing, reusing, and recycling. But, is repair dead? Dying? Or reviving?

In some sense repair as a way of life seems long dead. In a lot of the old fables and fairy tales I read my daughter these days, there are tinkers, cobblers, tailors, junk peddlers, and rag-and-bone men. Medieval Europeans just didn’t throw stuff away. Neither did my grandparents who’d lived through the Great Depression. But in more recent history—even as recently (ah-hem) as my childhood—back in the late ’70s and through the 1980s, there were still people who made a living in my little hometown repairing things. I remember the quiet, old guy with thick glasses and coveralls who repaired televisions, radios, tools and the like. He had a busy main street store front where, one by one, he revived the electronics piled up around him. There was a shoe repair shop. You could buy nifty iron-on patches for your denim pants at the drug store. My favorite of all, was the toy repair lady. She had a mile-high beehive hairdo and a tiny upstairs workshop in a creaky old building. She reattached a limb and put new hair on my favorite doll—a doll way too important to throw away.

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  • How quaint that seems now, in our world of big box stores, online retailers, and planned obsolescence. Stuff breaks and falls apart all the time. But why fix it? Just throw it away and get a new one! Sure there are still some repair shops—for laptops, shoes, bikes, cars—but they are fewer and farther between. And that means getting stuff fixed up today is often prohibitively expensive. In fact, outside really big ticket items, it’s cheaper to buy new. (Take handheld devices like iPods and digital cameras for example: around $200 to fix; $250 to buy the shiny, new, faster, better, updated version.)

    But, I’m heartened by what seems like a small but meaningful repair revival—for some, a necessity in this economy, and for many, a conscious backlash against our hyper-consumerist times. People are getting excited again about re-purposing, “up-cycling,” sharing, and tinkering! The Dutch repair cafes are one example (and the idea may be spreading) and national publications like Good Magazine devote a lot of ink to up-cycling, tinkering, and fixing; there are real, live, local happenings too.

    For instance, a simple community project like the West Seattle tool library has spawned some amazing local repair clubs.

    The West Seattle Fixers Collective is “fixing the world (or at least West Seattle).” They host DIY fix-it events that look like a good way to get your electronics repaired and a nice way to connect with neighbors too. (They’re two-for-two fixing KitchenAid mixers!) This is from their website:

    The unpredictable projects range from re-sewing umbrellas to repairing home appliances, such as; kitchen mixers, laptops, espresso makers, desk lamps and even a few antiques. Members share a common interest of refusing to throw things out. They take true ownership of their belongings by taking them apart and figuring out how they work. They also get enjoyment by fixing their belongings themselves or helping others fix their broken possessions. Join them if you share these interests or just love tinkering.

    And the West Seattle Spokespeople have been sponsoring free bike repair at Fixers’ meetings.

    Yet another related Seattle community collective, RENEW,  meets up to divert and re-purpose stuff headed for the landfill.

    (I’m thinking we should start calling West Seattle “Little Amsterdam?”)

    There’s some action in Oregon too (probably more than I know).

    For ten years, residents of Ashland, Oregon, have held an “abundance swap” in early December as an alternative to shopping for new holiday gifts.

    The City of Portland’s Be Resourceful site lists community resources for sharing and repairing, including bike and shoe repair places and the North Portland Tool Library, Northeast Portland Tool Library, and  Southeast Portland Tool Library. There are several “swap and play” spaces where, as the name indicates, Portland families can not only get together to play, but can also swap outgrown toys and clothes. There’s also an online forum where Portlanders can share stories about their own resourcefulness.

    The Missoula Urban Demonstration Project (MUD) has a tool library and community classes and resources for becoming all-around more self-sufficient.

    Vancouver, BC, also has a tool library. They offer bike maintenance workshops. There’s also U-Fix-It Bike Works, a program for BC youth.

    I’m on the lookout for other BC fixers—and more groups in Washington and Oregon too.

    At the other end of the supply chain, “repair ware” designers are thinking about how we can once again make products that are durable and simple enough to repair at home. And mindful companies like Patagonia are making pledges to make quality stuff that won’t self-destruct right away, but also to repair their goods so that they don’t end up in a landfill prematurely.

    There are lots of other good ideas out there.

    What’s your repair story?